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HUMMING ALONG, top down, in the Miata he'd picked up at the Providence airport, Jim Hornswich offered his forehead to the sun as a sort of toast to being on holiday. After all, he described such behavior to his clientele as a sin. He was impressed by the approach to Long Spit, the glimpses of the river along the road down from Westerly, here and there yachts on moorings, then the road narrowing and winding between high hedges and stone walls as he hit the outskirts of the village proper. A far cry from the miles of scrappy by-the-week bungalows on the way into Provincetown.
Helen Boothroyd's house was much nicer than he had expected. It looked like a family home rather than the sort of shabby one-night-stand pads he'd tried up on the Cape. Helen answered the door with a bemused look. "Hello? Now, you'd be Mr. Hornswich?"
"Yes, hello. It's Dr. Hornswich, actually, but Jim is fine."
"And you've come all the way from Nebraska, did I get that right?" Her voice was friendly but wary, as though she were coping with a game whose rules she didn't quite understand.
"That's right, ma'am."
She ushered him into the front hall. "Well, I'm so glad you've come, but really I can't get over how you thought to call me. I've had others, well, right now I've got anotheróI guess you'd call them a pairóof young men upstairs, here for a second visit, and, of course that's just fine and all, I just don't understand where you're all coming from. Do you have friends here?"
"No, but I hope to pretty soon," said Jim, jaunty but a bit puzzled. "I saw your ad in The Advocate."
Helen started. "Well now, I've never heard of that. What's it called again?"
"Here, I'll show you." He dug in his bag and produced the magazine. "It was here somewhere, in the back, in the travel classifieds." He flipped through pages of phone sex ads depicting muscular young men entwined in phone cords or licking their receivers. Helen's eyes darted nervously.
"Yeah, here it is." He handed her the magazine. Helen's lips moved, her brow furrowing: "'Where boys can be left alone to get up to whatever boys will get up to' . . . Well, this just has to be a mistake." She glanced at the cover: "We Do Hot Berlin." "What is this magazine?"
"It's the biggest gay magazine in the country," said Jim. "You mean you don't know anything about this?"
"Why, no. Nothing at all," said Helen, beginning to understand a couple of things.
"I just thought this place looked like something a little different and I'd give it a try," said Jim.
Helen continued to scrutinize the travel page. "Well, I'll be," she said. "Here's Nancy Jenkins's place up the street. Hmmm . . . 'Could he be waiting for you beside our pool?' This is most peculiar." Helen looked up. "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm not being a very good hostess, am I. Let me show you to your room. May I borrow this for a few moments?"
When Jim was installed in his room, Helen put the magazine in a brown paper bag and strode up the street toward the Gull and Rose Guesthouse. Nancy's husband, Sam, had been a hydraulics engineer at the Electric Boat plant in Groton, but had been downsized into early retirement, so she had started taking in guests at about the same time as Helen. They were each other's confidantes in their new ventures. From the start, Sam had been prickly about the guesthouse, perhaps feeling it called attention to his humiliating idleness.
Helen gripped the folded magazine so tightly her arthritic knuckles throbbed; she felt queasier by the minute, as though her house had been broken into. It had been a leap for her to open her home to strangers in the first place, but somehow she'd gotten used to it. She'd done a bit of advertising, really just the small ad in the back of Yankee and a corner of the placemats at Angleton's, so she'd never really thought much about where her clientele came fromó"word of mouth" had a cozy, safe feel to it. But discovering that unknown forces were reaching into her life this way was disturbing.
At the Gull and Rose five young men lounged on the front porch. She nodded to them with an apologetic smile and stuck her head in the front door. "Nan? It's Helen."
Nancy Jenkins arrived at the front door, glanced at Helen, at the men, and back at Helen. "Come on in the kitchen. I'm just cleaning up." As soon as they closed the kitchen door, Nancy said, "Do you have any idea what is going on? Where are they coming from? Lois has them, too. My husband is having a fit. I mean, they're nice enough young fellows, very clean actually, I barely need to touch their rooms, but have you got them too?"
"Yes, I do," said Helen, "and one of them just showed me this." She glanced around cautiously and produced the magazine from the brown paper bag.
HOLLIS SAT on his sunporch, awaiting Anthony's arrival. He always felt a mild agitation, almost pleasant actually, before these lessons. First would come the appetizer: watching Anthony come up the walk. Anthony's walk was a beguiling mix of shyness and jauntiness; it combined the bottomless unease of adolescence with a charming openness to whatever the next moment held in store. And those endearingly hesitant strides would deliver him to these rooms, where he would be close at hand for at least an hour. Hollis's determination to observe proper decorum gave a certain tingle of the forbidden to the routine touching of the young man that was, to be sure, necessary for assessing his developing vocal technique. Sometimes, though, he was so caught up in fine-tuning his pose of nonchalance that he not only neglected to enjoy the information coming in through his fingertips, he also failed to note whether the vocal technique was improving. He couldn't very well repeat the pressing of the tummy or the gentle grasping of the bony shoulders to correct the posture, surely a giveaway. So he would be forced to make some noncommittal response, compounding his erotic frustration with the concern that he was a pedagogue of worryingly low integrity.
As he idly scanned the porch's commanding view of Long Spit, something caught his eye and propelled him to the telescope on its tripod nearby. It was a very good one, a Carl Zeiss that his father had acquired for spotting enemy bombers during World War II. It was one family possession Hollis had not sold off, handy as it was for inspecting the occasional jogger passing in the lane below.
He brought the dunes, a half-mile or so distant, into focus. What had caught his eye was a figure the unmistakable color of skin standing in the tall grass at the crest of the dune. He located the figure and fiddled with the focus knob. "What in the . . .?" Sure enough, the figure was a naked, rather well-built man, standing utterly motionless. He was positioned so that, while Hollis had a clear view of him, anyone glancing up at him from below on the beach would have glimpsed just a suggestion of his nakedness through the waving grass.
Hollis traced the ridge of the dune with the lens and came upon another figure, slightly more hidden, also standing still as a sentry, also naked but for a black military cap and black straps crossing his chest like bandoliers. He stared, muttering to himself in the "confused idiot" voice that he often used to vent irritation. "People never stand that still. Are they playing statues? Maybe they're mimes."
With a start he became aware of Anthony, tapping insistently and looking in at him from the screen door at the end of the porch. "Oh, hello, Anthony, sorry, come in!" He jumped up, swiveling the telescope toward the wall. "A thrush, lovely, the first of the season." Anthony padded across the porch, understanding that he was not expected to pursue the topic.
They went into the front parlor where the ancestral rosewood Chickering grand piano reposed, its lid bearing a display of slave auction handbills, each illustrating the sort of vigorous merchandise that would be on offer. They took their places, Hollis at the keyboard, Anthony standing at his side, and Anthony began his vocalizing. As always, Hollis encouraged, admonished, indicated diction for Anthony to parrot ("Nay, nay, nay, nay, nayyy . . . Noo, noo, noo, noo, noooo . . .") corrected intonation, vibrato, ordered hard consonant attacks ("Tut, tut, tut, tut, tuuuut") and legato arpeggios but couldn't quite keep from glancing out the parlor windows, across the porch, to the barely perceptible figures off in the dunes.
He had Anthony run through a scale in long tones, normally one of his favorite moments, since he had leave to perform the breathing check: one hand on the small of Anthony's back, the other on his deliciously flat tummy. Normally, this was the moment that posed the most exquisite test for his studied reserve; though lost in pondering the effortless leanness of youth, he must remember to furrow his brow and chide, "Support the air column!" Yet even in that moment he couldn't resist shooting another look out the window.
Anthony was instantly aware of Hollis's distraction, and surprised by his own reaction to it. He had convinced himself that he was magnanimous in allowing this pawing, and even permitted himself, before each lesson, an inward groan at the prospect of it. Surely he had every right to find it presumptuous, and without a doubt he had no interest in ever reciprocating the impermissible longings made plain by the moment that he knew, each week, would come: the long, bony fingers, the dreaded, lecherous invasion. He would brace for it, stiffen slightly but also make sure everything was held just so, arch his back slightly, because, for all the unease, there was a sense of power in drawing Hollis's touch, for the first time a hold over an adult. This power needed to be skillfully, subtly put in play. But this time Hollis was not even paying attention. What's out that window? Have I held him off for too long, has he given up the chase?
The lesson played out in a slightly chillier atmosphere Hollis uncharacteristically distant, Anthony resistant to the other small touches. Each felt his way on new ground, a tit for tat of small slightings, infinitesimal, stubborn delays in response. In the space of just a few minutes, this new atmosphere made clear by contrast what had been tacitly understood before: that each was getting something from the encounters, something that needed to remain unexpressed.
After the lesson ended, Hollis watched Anthony go down the walk. He had completely missed the weekly pleasure of watching his student come up the walk, and now he noted a subdued quality to the departing figure, nearly a pout. He mulled over why the lesson had left him so thrown off balance.
Hollis had spent years evolving his timid routines, lovingly expending thousands of hours on his peculiar archival passions, his erotic flights rigidly restricted to the realm of fantasy. These last months of teaching Anthony had been a crack in his armor of self-discipline. He'd told himself this foray was not a departure because these touches weren't headed anywhere, rather were a destination unto themselves, one he could be satisfied with. But having settled for an exclusive diet of the imagination for so long, he'd been astonished by how much libidinous fuel could be concentrated into a second's touch of fingertip to collarbone, enough to keep a week's worth of fantasy smoldering dangerously, like a fire in a wastebasket. Although he had convinced himself that his purity had remained uncompromised, he'd become quite simply addicted to this weekly crumb of taboo. He'd avoided thinking about the certainty that this idyll would end, possibly badly; he persisted in regarding it as an indulgence just as harmless, just as divorced from reality, as his dreamy leafing through his folios of slave boys. But now, having Anthony in range of his touch against the backdrop of the men in the dunes confronted Hollis with a connection he found deeply unnerving.
Anthony, for his part, was amazed at the intensity of his reaction. All that had happened was that his weekly scrap of approval in what he'd convinced himself was a minor arena had been snatched away, and yet there was no denying that he felt utterly rejected, devastated. He had taken Hollis's attentions for granted, had settled for them as his total exploration of that hazardous region of his soul, and now had been summarily kicked aside. Suddenly the whole setup seemed preposterous. How could he have let something so important, mysterious, and fragile hinge on such a haphazard, unacknowledged arrangement? He felt set back to zero, a perilous state with his village newly populated by handsome young men, roaming the streets, sitting on the curbstones for hours on end, waiting.